On Saturday afternoon Wanganui take on Waikato for the most cherished prize in New Zealand rugby. It will be the union's 29th attempt to lift the Ranfurly Shield. Zaryd Wilson looks at the improbable task, past close calls and the lure of the Log O' Wood.

There a few prizes in world sport that can create so much intrigue and interest despite a huge gulf in ability between teams.

Football's FA Cup can throw up such games; the draw pitting lowly clubs against giants of the football world.

World cups in various codes do the same.

In New Zealand rugby it's the Ranfurly Shield.

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Played for since 1904, the Ranfurly Shield works on a challenge-based system and is the only national trophy that can cross divisions.

During regular season play the Log O' Wood goes on the line at the holder's home games.
But in the professional era provinces from the second tier Heartland competition get a go in the pre-season.

Despite the long odds, the lure of the shield and the hope of an upset victory remains.
The Shield, as expected, has been hogged by the major centres over its 112 year history - think Auckland, Canterbury and Waikato.

Wanganui's previous 28 challenges have been a mix of closes calls in the middle of last century, and modern day floggings, most recently at the hands of Taranaki in 2012. (51-7)

Perhaps Wanganui's best chances came in the 1950s and 1960s.

Marton's Dick Hurn played in four Ranfurly Shield challenges, one for Manawatu, before shifting across to Wanganui.

His first shield game for Wanganui was against Canterbury.

"That was the tour that we played - we went south - when we played Canterbury in '56 we played four games in the first week; Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday," Hurn says.

"We lost. Canterbury had a good-ish team but, no, they were too good for us and it was [19-6)."

Hurn's next challenge was the next year.

"Wellington took the shield off Canterbury and then we played Wellington. We did quite well in the first spell [but]... they ran out quite good winners but we had our period; we got a try or two."

Marton's Dick Hurn had four cracks at the Ranfurly Shield - all unsuccessful. But he cherishes the games. Photo/ Bevan Conley.
Marton's Dick Hurn had four cracks at the Ranfurly Shield - all unsuccessful. But he cherishes the games. Photo/ Bevan Conley.

Hurn got dropped after the '57 season but was back in 1959 when he had his fourth and final attempt to lift the Log 'o Wood.

"Against Taranaki again. That was a succession of games because we played Taranaki for the shield in '59 on the Saturday and did pretty well (11-17).

"And then on the Wednesday we played the [British & Irish] Lions at Spriggens Park and could've won."

While Hurn never got to hold the shield, the four matches he played are good memories for him. There's a faint smile as he recalls them.

"You were the underdog, being the challenger and everything was on," he says.

"And the crowd of course was the home crowd and your supporters would go and be there and there was just as roar. And the rugby was pretty good too.

"We had some good tussles. Different to a normal rep game because it was the prestige of the shield. And to get your hands on that it's a big thing.

"But it was a privilege to play in the games."

The closest Wanganui got was in 1963 and 1964, both against neighbours Taranaki.

Former Wanganui Chronicle sports journalist John (JB) Phillips was there.

There was the 12-14 loss in 1963 when Phillips watched from the press box as Wanganui had the shield glory ripped out of their hands in the last seconds.

"We led," he says.

"Colin Pearce who was the goal kicker took a quick dropout and the referee ruled that too many people were on the side line and he didn't know if the ball had gone over the side line or not so he ruled a scrum.

"Taranaki got it and whipped it out to Kerry Hurley who scored in the corner."

"You hope that they have a shit day and we have a fantastic day and if you don't back yourself with a chance then there's no point going."

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The next year Wanganui went even closer in a 15-15 draw.

"Again Colin Pearce had a long shot at goal which could have won the game, just missed.
But Wanganui did play well," Phillips says.

"Their record was nothing outstanding in those years but we rose to the occasion."

And that's what the shield can do to teams.

"It's a milestone in their careers and I think Wanganui coaches over the years have stressed that it's not just the importance of playing in a shield game but the honour of playing in it," Phillips says.

"It's their moment of glory, their only chance to try their hand against All Blacks and better quality players and as a result they put a little extra into their tackling and a little bit more drive into their play and some of them achieve their moment of glory.

"It is a feather in your cap if you can get selected in a shield team."

But Phillips has seen enough shield rugby to be realistic about Saturday's match.

It's become a taller order with professionalism widening the gap between the smaller and larger unions.

"It's going to be quite a challenge now to go to Waikato and beat them. They donkey licked us last time we played them in Tokoroa.

"Really I think Wanganui has to be realistic and this is part of the build up to the Heartland campaign."

While it's 15 against 15, Wanganui coach Jason Caskey says there is always a chance of a shield upset. Photo/ Bevan Conley
While it's 15 against 15, Wanganui coach Jason Caskey says there is always a chance of a shield upset. Photo/ Bevan Conley

But while an elusive and improbable win still await the province, the current crop of players and coaches rightly live in hope. Upsets of this nature do happen.

This will be current coach Jason Caskey's fourth challenge, going down to Wellington, Southland and Taranaki.

"Nowadays it's probably even bigger because you don't have the games where Wanganui used to play the likes of Taranaki, Manawatu on a regular basis," he says.

"At best you play their B teams which aren't even regarded as first class games, so yeah, a shield challenge is a big occasion and you don't get too many chances during your rugby career.

There's a different dynamic to a shield game.

"You're sort of rank amateurs competing against the big fullas so I think the relish the opportunity to have a go against them."

To do that, players need to adapt pretty quickly.

"It would be awesome for Whanganui and Wanganui Rugby and everyone involved in our community if we did bring it home."

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"It's just a matter of trying to get into the player's head about the speed of the game," Caskey says.

"They're so much more organised and the pace is a lot quicker and you're under pressure all the time. You don't get time to react if you're a little bit off the pace you get punished real quick.

"It's the difference between players that train every day and are in gyms against our guys who are probably out on the farm or in the saw mill somewhere and limited in their training time."

Wanganui Rugby CEO Bridget Belsham says a Ranfurly Shield win would be great for the region. Photo/ Bevan Conley
Wanganui Rugby CEO Bridget Belsham says a Ranfurly Shield win would be great for the region. Photo/ Bevan Conley

But long odds doesn't mean there's not a chance. If the game is broken down into minutes and single plays it seems a little more achievable.

"There's always a chance," Caskey says. "We wouldn't be going if there wasn't a chance.

"You hope that they have a shit day and we have a fantastic day and if you don't back yourself with a chance then there's no point going.

"It's 15 against 15 on the field in the end and one person against one when it comes to a single battle so it's doable but obviously a rank outside chance. But there is a chance."

Caskey says the idea is to stay in the game as long as possible.

"Most of the ones we've been involved with we've been in the hunt 50 minutes into the game and it's only in the last 20-25 minutes that the opposition pull away.

"I've always said if you can push that to 15 minutes to go then you're a real chance because the opposition start panicking a bit because they're wondering why they haven't put you away and the pressure goes on them more than us."

Just how hard is that to do?

Wanganui hooker Cole Baldwin has played in the past few Wanganui shield challenges.

When he scored for Wanganui against Taranaki in 2012 it was the province's first try in a shield game since 1987 (four games).

"It's certainly a good opportunity to see where you're at," Baldwin says.

"It gives [players] a chance to express themselves and really see where they're at and you always go up there with the belief that you're going to win. We're not going up there just to make up the numbers. We want to do our province proud and all of our supporters and families proud."

Baldwin says a Wanganui win would be great would be great for the team and the

Wanganui community but also the other Heartland teams.

"They'd all get a chance to play for it as well and I think that'd be special for the whole competition," he says.

"I hope we do well. We're going up there to win, so nothing else is really acceptable."

Wanganui Rugby Football Union CEO Bridget Belsham is hoping Wanganui can do the improbable and secure the benefits that come with a shield tenure.

"It's a pretty amazing experience for the players and coaches to have the opportunity to challenge for the shield. The Log O' Wood is pretty special to the unions," she says.

"For Taranaki when they won it - I'm a Taranaki girl - it was pretty special for the province.

"It would be awesome for Whanganui and Wanganui Rugby and everyone involved in our community if we did bring it home."